Khitans Settle Near Beijing Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Khitans moved into northern China and founded the Liao Dynasty. They retained their ethnic identity, and their dualistic administration set the pattern for later conquering dynasties.

Summary of Event

The Khitans were a Mongol nation of eight tribes whose homeland lay along the eastern slopes of the Greater Xing’an Mountains in Manchuria, north of China. Chinese sources record relations with the Qidan (Khitans) as early as the fifth century. They were nomadic pastoralists who raised horses and cattle and fought as mounted cavalrymen in the steppe tradition. They shared borders to the west with other nomadic Mongols, to the north with the forest hunters of the Jurchen tribes, and to the east with the hunters, farmers, and fisherfolk of the Bohai (Po-hai) state of northern Korea. [kw]Khitans Settle Near Beijing (936) [kw]Beijing, Khitans Settle Near (936) Khitans China;936: Khitans Settle Near Beijing[1150] Expansion and land acquisition;936: Khitans Settle Near Beijing[1150] Government and politics;936: Khitans Settle Near Beijing[1150] Abaoji Deguang Zhao Kuangyin

With the breakup of the Uighur state, to which they had been subject during the Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907), many of these Turkish people entered Khitan society. The position of khan, or leader of the Eight Tribes, emerged in the mid-eighth century and rotated among various tribal chieftains for 150 years. In 905, the chief of the Yila tribe, Abaoji Abaoji , led seventy thousand cavalry in the conquest of the Chinese borderland of Datong. This bold and aggressive move ensured his “election” as Khitan khan in 907, which in turn established the Khitan Liao Dynasty Khitan Liao Dynasty (so named in 947, Chinese style, for a homeland river; 907-1125). China’s imperial administration and armies failed to respond effectively because of the disarray that followed the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in 907. This inaugurated a period of Chinese weakness known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (China) (907-960). Khitan foreign policy throughout this time aimed at keeping the Chinese pot stirred and its imperial administration unstable.

Under the leadership of Abaoji, now the emperor Taizu (T’ai-tsu), Khitan armies brought their western, northern, and eastern neighbors under submission. These groups were administered in typical steppe fashion, with garrisons of faithful troops studding the landscape. Conquest of northern Chinese-settled areas prompted Abaoji to adopt a novel, dual model for ruling his territories. He established a northern chancellery that was Khitan, was military in emphasis, and concentrated on the shifting non-Chinese populations as well as a primarily civil southern chancellery that was largely Chinese and oversaw the collection of taxes and the application of Chinese law in the settled, ethnically Chinese areas.

He went further, adopting Chinese court rituals in 916 and founding a capital city, Shangjing, on the Chinese model, in 918. The Khitans soon established more than thirty new Chinese-style cities for administration and manufacturing, in which ethnic Chinese dominated. Abaoji also declared primogeniture—rule by the firstborn male—mimicking the Chinese yet again. Despite Abaoji’s wishes, he was succeeded in 926 by his second son, Deguang Deguang , who was heavily supported by his powerful mother, Yingtian. The elder brother, Bei, was considered too “Chinese” by the ethnic Khitans at court, and indeed, he spent the last ten years of his life writing Chinese poetry in China.

The early 930’s witnessed a deepening of Chinese disunity. The Chinese rebel leader Shi Jingtang Shi Jingtang attacked the rump Tang power base with Khitan assistance, emerging as a Khitan puppet. In 936, armies of mounted archers belonging to Deguang, who ruled as Taizong (T’ai-tsung), carved out a swath of northern Chinese territory for their emperor. This territory ranged from 70 to 100 miles (110 to 160 kilometers) in depth and became known as the Sixteen Prefectures Sixteen Prefectures (China) (though there were actually nineteen). Deguang ruled these prefectures from his new capital at Yen near the site of modern Beijing.

Like his father, Deguang retained most elements of the Chinese administrative system and relied heavily on the natives both to remain productive members of society and to serve as administrators. His dual system had two prime ministers and six ministries: war, justice, revenues, works, rites, and personnel. In 988, the Khitan administration in the south instituted the Chinese examination system for bureaucrats, a requirement that remained applicable only to the southerners. Both Deguang and his father may have envisioned Khitan rule over all of China, but frequent campaigning along the Mongol and Jurchen frontiers proved a constant distraction. The success of this northern policy reduced the number of unabsorbed tribes, prefiguring the greater consolidations under Genghis Khan’s horde. According to scholar F. W. Mote, the core structure of the northern Khitan state rose from eight tribes to sixty-two.





The unsuccessful Chinese attempt in 960 to regain the lost prefectures resulted in the death of the Chinese emperor and the rise of Zhao Kuangyin Zhao Kuangyin , founder of the Song Dynasty Song Dynasty (Sung; 960-1279) in China. Zhao, who ruled as Taizu (T’ai-tsu), spent two decades consolidating his power in China before turning on the northern Turkic Han, a client state of the Liao. In 979, the Han fell to the Chinese, who proceeded against weak resistance to Yen (Beijing). Though the Song army besieged the city, they were crushed at the Battle of the Gaoliang River Gaoliang River, Battle of the (979) (979). The Chinese formally recognized the Khitan state and its hold on Chinese territory in early 1005, when annual tributes were set and the emperors recognized each other as “brothers.” This ushered in a century of relative peace and Khitan prosperity.

Khitan society and culture changed considerably with the infusion of Chinese China;influence on Khitans culture. Abouji had Confucians, Buddhists, and Daoists at court, but he preferred the Confucian beliefs and rituals. After his death, Buddhism replaced Confucianism, and the Khitan imperial family, known as the Liao after 947, became great patrons of monks and scribes. This provided the Khitans with ties to other Buddhist cultures in Xixia, Korea, Tibet, China, and even Japan. Beginning with Deguang, the Khitans fostered cultural contacts and exchanges, and Yen became a center of Buddhist creative activity from the 990’. Among the steppe folk to the north, however, the animistic tribal religions and warrior ethic remained dominant. Nonetheless, important Buddhist texts were translated into Khitan through a new written language that borrowed from both the Turkic and Chinese. Religion;Khitans

The early twelfth century saw the rise of the Jurchen Jurchens leader Aguda Aguda , whose ascent to power paralleled that of Abaoji. From about 1115, Aguda was able to unify his people and gain useful allies among disaffected Khitans and many of those under Khitan rule. His invasion of the Khitan state swept through the tribal areas, and the northern capital fell in 1120. The Chinese portions of the Khitan state fell just as rapidly. Aguda marched into Yen in 1122, though the disappearance of the Liao state is generally dated to 1125.


The Khitan model of bringing the steppe and Chinese settled areas under a single if dualistic administration set the tone for later “conquest dynasties”—including the Mongols—and influenced the region until the seventeenth century. Khitan recognition of the need for ethnic and cultural division extended to a long-standing prohibition against intermarriage. The Khitans retained their ethnic identity despite heavy borrowing from the Chinese, demonstrating that “barbarians” could not only conquer but also rule. In addition, they could rule not only according to their own steppe traditions but also in accord with “civilized” Chinese practice.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barfield, Thomas J. The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 B.C. to A.D. 1757. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. Places Khitan achievements in the context of Chinese relations with the “Manchurian candidates”of the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. This cultural history moves beyond dynastic labels to view interactions that both enriched and spread Chinese culture. Places especially strong emphasis on the Tang and Sung Dynasties.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mote, F. W. Imperial China, 900-1800. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. Several chapters cover the rise of the Khitans and their administration, society, and culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sinor, Denis, ed. The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. The final essay provides a brief overview of Khitan and Jurchen society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Twitchett, Denis, and Klaus-Peter Tietze. “The Liao.” In Alien Regimes and Border States, 907-1368. Vol. 6 in The Cambridge History of China, edited by Denis Twitchett and Herbert Franke. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. An extensive analysis of the Khitan Liao Dynasty, especially in its relations with China.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wittfogel, Karl A., and Feng Chia-sheng. History of Chinese Society: Liao (907-1125). Philadelphia: Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 1949. The standard work in English on the Khitans, based on an exhaustive study of Chinese sources.

Categories: History